California has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. In May 2021, the median home value surpassed $800,000, exacerbating a protracted housing shortage and the already high cost of living. While the reasons for California’s housing situation are complex, zoning regulations that make multifamily housing difficult to construct and opposition from single-family homeowners are two major obstacles preventing the mass housing needed to expand access and reduce costs.
A consequence of California’s high housing prices is homelessness and housing instability. As home values soar, rents increase exponentially and force out tenants who cannot afford the higher prices. It was not until January 2020 that California implemented state-wide rent control, capping annual rent increases to 5%; it was the second state to introduce state-level rent control laws (after Oregon). While demand continues to outstrip construction of new multifamily and affordable housing, these projects represent a new direction for providing increased access to housing in California.
In response to the housing crisis, organizations such as the Skid Row Housing Trust — a charity that offers 2,000 units in over 25 buildings across Los Angeles — have worked to serve populations adversely impacted by the housing market. Flor 401 Lofts in Los Angeles is one of the Trust’s project and was designed to house and provide services for homeless veterans, low-income families, and individuals with special needs. Two concerns behind the Lofts’ design were achieving high environmental standards and creating a living space promoting wellbeing and community. In the center of the u-shaped complex is a shaded courtyard with broad benches and trees. The project was commended in Architizer’s 2021 A+Awards, winning the Popular Vote in the Multi-Unit Housing category.
Also in Los Angeles but not administered by charity, The Courtyard at La Brea offers 32-units of mixed-income housing. Some units are reserved for moderate and low-income individuals, and others for people with disabilities. On the ground floor, commercial rental space faces the street. The development is in a walkable area close to restaurants, stores and services. White ribbons wrap around the building’s exterior facade and invoke Los Angeles’ Art Deco style architecture.
In Santa Monica, Kanner Architects’ 26th Street Affordable Housing was acclaimed, winning the AIA Honor Award and the AIA National Housing Award. Units face an interior courtyard with open-air hallways. Toward the busier streets, the apartments have special walls to reduce the sound of traffic. Additional environmental considerations such as drywalls for stormwater runoff and apartment layout to maximize cross breezes were considered and incorporated into the design. On the white-cube exterior, a pastel mural with various architectural forms runs across the lower register.
For future construction, transit-oriented development is essential to create walkable environments and meet carbon reduction goals; California has the most ambitious climate change program in the United States. Potrero 1010 by David Baker Architects was designed to ensure easy access to public transit for residents. The apartments were built on a former industrial site next to a highway in Potrero, one of the sunniest locations in the notoriously foggy city. Overall, there are 453 units, including 90 affordable apartments. The project’s development was bureaucratically complex, owing to multiple stakeholders and owners, including the City of San Francisco, the owner of Daggett Park, which is a pubic space taht sits at the center of the apartments.
In the greater metropolitan area of San Francisco, transit-oriented development has been a top priority for BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). The agency, which oversees public transit in five counties, is converting parking lots and unused plots around its stations into multifamily housing units and aims to complete projects at 11 stations by 2025. For BART, transforming underused land into housing has an array of benefits. Housing near transit stations boosts ridership, stimulates local economic development, and promotes economic equity. Unlike market-driven development, BART ensures a higher percentage of affordable homes than typical new construction and can target units in areas experiencing displacement. Additionally, developing land bolsters BART’s financial situation by providing additional income from rent and leasing.
As California’s population continues to grow and income inequality surges, ensuring the availability of affordable housing for all should be a key governmental priority. With the impending rollback of the pandemic eviction moratorium, evictions will increase and leave more people with fewer options for housing. The construction of dense, multifamily housing offered at below-market rates with access to public transit has the potential to transform California’s rental economy and help the state meet its carbon reduction goals.